Taking care of the most vulnerable among us
remains a huge challenge
Rev. David K. O'Rourke, OP
Marriage is big news in California these days. Actually, this is nothing new.
A couple of generations ago marriage across some ethnic and national-origin lines was not allowed. Those laws were repealed.
And during my first years here as a licensed marriage counselor the laws on ending marriage were changed from an adversarial suit in court by one partner against the other, which we knew as divorce, to a simple petition by one partner to end the marriage, which we call the dissolution of marriage.
But one thing has not changed. And that is the reason why the church set out its laws on marriage nearly 900 years ago. Then, just as today, women and their children are being left to survive as best they can by the fathers of their kids. The need to protect them from abandonment is as real today as it was in the Middle Ages.
When the church became involved in law on marriage 900 years ago it had a purpose. It was to prevent women and their children from being abandoned because of what were called clandestine marriages. In those days marriage customs often involved the two clans or the two families in some kind of public ceremony.
The ceremonies were described, in Latin, as taking place in facie Ecclesiae. Literally, this means "in the face of the church." This could mean a marriage on the front porch of the church, or in the presence of a church official or in the presence of the church community. But the important thing was that it was public.
The families and the spouses would enter into a public agreement in some form. The church wanted the spouses to consent, even in days when the agreements were between families. And with everyone watching, and often celebrating, everyone knew who was married to whom, who was responsible for the children.
But then, around 1100, something new began happening. We begin to hear of marriages taking place not in public, but in private. They were called clandestine marriages. Men and women could consent to marry in private vows. Or men could abduct women and force them to marry. In these situations there were no public witness, no public ceremony, no record. And no public awareness of who was the father of the women's child or children.
Clandestine marriages were making for trouble. Men would promise privately to care for the bride, make private vows — and then later take off. Or the man could die, and his family could deny any claim to inheritance on the ground that this was just a liaison, with no proof of who the father was. Or the man's family could simply tell him to get rid of her, and her children, and marry a woman the family chose for its own reasons.
The woman, of course, was left with no recourse, no public record and no means to support herself and her child. And these situations were becoming very common.
It was in this context that the new requirement for a public and witnessed ceremony with a legal record, protecting the women and children, entered into the laws.
Talk about re-inventing the wheel. Today, with men and women not availing themselves of existing legal supports and legal ties, we see the same thing again.
We see women with children in great need. A man who really does not want to provide child support payments can often find some way to get around doing it — even it if means disappearing.
Guaranteeing the right of women to raise children in a healthy and secure context, with access to housing, education, medical care and preparation for employment and citizenship, is a serious social need.
Rearing the next generation of citizens is one of society's most basic jobs. The need is recognized as fundamental in the church's social teaching. But the context that once worked here, whatever values it had or did not have, is largely gone. And has all happened, in a historic context, with lightning speed.
U.S. Census figures can be eye-openers when it comes to the places of women with kids. For example, a number of communities along the Interstate 680 corridor — from Concord down toward Pleasanton — have household incomes higher than average. The market there costs more. They also have fewer single-parent households.
Why? Well, when couples split up and they have two households to pay for, the single parent can end up moving to towns where rents are lower. And that single parent is usually a woman.
In the last 30 years or so there has been a sharp decrease in the percentage of women bearing children within a legal relationship, and an increase in the number of children born outside a legal relationship. Legal relationships are the doorways to financial and health support.
Where all these changes will lead is, of course, unknown. But what we do know is that the oldest of our problems — cutting women and their children loose from social supports — is as big a problem as it was 1,000 years ago.
When will this change? Probably not until the first guy gets pregnant. And none of us, I imagine, is holding his or her breath until that happens. But until then our traditional role of taking care of the most vulnerable among us remains as huge a challenge as ever.
And make no mistake about it, they are not getting the support they need. The largest group of under-nourished citizens, and the largest group without access to medical care, are our children.
(Father O'Rourke is parochial administrator at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Point Richmond and defender of the bond for the diocesan Department of Cannon Law/Marriage Tribunal.)
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